Reviewed by Jill
Bryan Fry’s fascination with the reptile world began early in life. A supportive family did not try to dissuade him. Fortunately he learnt caution early on, because this was to be his career and lifelong passion. He achieved many firsts, both species capture and the unravelling of the puzzle that is venom and reptile relationships. Venom Doc: the edgiest, darkest and strangest natural history memoir ever is an easy read, sometimes irritating, mostly fascinating.
This memoir follows the usual course of awakening, education, and then the results of a life devoted to reptiles. It reveals Fry’s unique life approach from the beginning. There were no courses of study to equip him directly for his research interests, so he worked with what was available. There are points along the way where he reports an observation or a query – something that piques his curiosity. Then the pieces fall into place, and a puzzle is solved – the existence of venom in varanids, the evolutionary history of currently separate species, or the effects of differing altitudes and habitats on a particular reptile.
Reptiles and their venom take Fry to some interesting places – the Antarctic, Ashmore Reef, Amazonia, Niue, Norway, to habitats, snake museums and research laboratories – each with a unique story. But this is in no way a travelogue. A consultancy to a BHP installation in Pakistan revealed a well-run outfit, committed to safety, but with a snake problem. He trained workers to catch, not kill, starting with rubber snakes, progressing to non-venomous biters and then graduating to more serious species. His observations in Flores unravelled misconceptions surrounding komodo-related deaths. There he made the scientific most of an unfortunate event – the effect of a komodo bite on blood pressure. Without planning to, Fry or his colleagues became test cases for envenomation by little-studied or new species. He provides a detached report (after the event of course) of several incidents. These led to the identification of alterations to therapies and treatments.
He isn’t always focussed completely on snakes. His traves expose him to other matters. He makes a good point about the effect of palm oil replacing bananas, the introduction of work crews on rotation and the effect on Colombian banana growers. His account of his boat journey on the Amazon is – well –honest.
Fry’s writing varies. There are some flippant sections, and throwaway lines that wear a bit thin. There is a fair amount of direct language and descriptions of events, an essential part of his story, but not to everyone’s taste. There are some terrific chapters that are densely packed and lucid accounts of discoveries, adventures and those aha! moments. And descriptions of his envenomation trips – the ‘chemical raping’, the physiological effects, ‘like the reverb distortion for electric guitar often overused … to cover a pathetic lack of skill. ‘ (17). These strong and concise descriptions are the closest most of us will come to the muscular and neurological effects of bites. They are some of the most compelling elements of Fry’s writing – a warning to the careless and the foolhardy, and better read than experienced. I look forward to his observations on the long-term effects on the human body of a frequent and severe exposure to venoms. But the writing is uneven – strong, weak, trivial, serious. Better editing might have helped smooth these peaks and troughs while maintaining a compelling story.
I needed a handy source of reference. There are only so many images that a memoir can sensibly provide without becoming a field guide to reptiles of the world. Fry’s sometimes lyrical descriptions of his subjects pepper the book. You just have to look.
Frequently, strong emotion comes through to counter the measured scientific tone of much of the narrative – pride (naturally) about a breakthrough, and strong irritation (understandably) about ill-informed criticism. He lost friends and colleagues to snakebite. He saw the results of gross stupidity and bravado. The emotion is strongest in the final stages of the memoir where his life takes some unexpected twists, and I don’t mean the severe injury sustained in an accidental somersault off a termite mound. Fry reveals a different side of himself – still a strong personality, but tackling a new life. He is honest in his assessment of aspects of the life that he has followed.
Fry has a knack of explaining to the layman the complexities of his chosen field. Whatever you feel about the sometimes irritating commentary, separate this from the nuggets of fact. Cast aside the stories you inherited about snakebite treatment and komodo bites, the effect of stingray encounters, and a lot more. Fry has achieved a lot. He has got up close and personal to something most of us prefer to read about. And it’s an easy read.
By Bryan Fry